They were wearing their brave faces at the National Party candidate selection meeting for Auckland Central on Monday night.
Steven Joyce was there. His chin was up, his face lively: He carries himself like a man with a weight off his shoulders. Even if, like a retired rugby player no longer required to keep himself match ready, he has, perhaps, transferred a little of that weight to his middle.
He said it was the first time he'd been at a candidate selection meeting as a delegate. He used to run the whole campaign. It didn't seem appropriate to ask if he'd have handled the Auckland Central meltdown differently.
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The National Party is proud of its candidate selection process – it's rigorous and ground-up democratic – and these affairs commonly attract a strong turnout of luminaries past and present. At a high-profile selection like this one, they crowd the room.
Not this time. Don McKinnon, former Deputy Prime Minister, was there. So was former president Sue Wood, former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp, soon-to-be former MP David Carter, one or two other formers and, wearing a very trim suit, current finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith. That was about it.
Nikki Kaye, the outgoing MP, was there. She wore a red jacket, as if she'd wandered into the wrong party meeting. The candidates themselves favoured black and blue.
Kaye sat at a table to the side, listening as every single speaker paid her the kind of glowing tributes that, in different circumstances, she might have expected not to hear for a further 20 or 30 years. She left as soon as the formalities were over.
It's been a rough month for the party. Then-leader Todd Muller stepped down on July 14 and two days later Kaye, his deputy, announced her resignation from Parliament altogether. So did front bencher Amy Adams.
The process to choose a new candidate for Auckland Central was almost derailed when party leaders announced a shortlist of two, although their rules say it should be five. There were complaints.
One of the two, Nuwi Samarakone, has already been selected as the party's candidate for Manurewa: There were more complaints. Photos and defamatory rumours about Samarakone circulated on social media.
The selection was delayed and other names added to the shortlist, but two of them promptly withdrew. Samarakone called in a QC. Shortly before the meeting, it was alleged a member of the party's board of directors, Cantabrian Roger Bridge, had rung NewstalkZB host Marcus Lush late one night last week. According to the claims, he called himself "Merv from Manurewa" and his purpose was to bad mouth Samarakone.
Yikes. At the start of the meeting the party's regional chair, Andrew Hunt, attempted to draw a line. He apologised for not following due process, calling it a "simple mistake". He criticised people in the party who were spreading "outrageous lies" and "unfounded rumours" and called on everyone present, fine upstanding members of the party all, to help "stamp this out".
It was not a speech a leader in any party would normally make in public. Hunt and Bridge are both members of the party's board of directors: Media will certainly not be in the room when they next meet.
Media are allowed in candidate selection meetings, though: It's a valued part of the process. We're just not allowed to report the candidate speeches.
Still, it's probably okay to note that the winner, Emma Mellow, quoted Winston Churchill, because she talked about it again after the meeting. "We shall fight them on the beaches," the speech he made in 1940 after the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk, when it seemed Britain would be invaded and all might be lost.
It was her way of attaching herself to the New Zealand spirit, and therefore National Party spirit, of not giving in to a marauding enemy like a coronavirus.
No harm in attaching yourself to historical world leaders, either, if you can pull it off.
Mellow brands herself as "a liberal young woman in the National Party". She's a communications specialist, a former student politician, a former political staffer with business experience: In short, she's a member of the new mainstream in New Zealand politics.
After her win she said no, she was not well known, but the party is and that's what people will be asked to vote for. Hunt had made the same point at the start of the meeting, telling the candidates they had one job and it was "to grow the party vote".
The National Party knows it's been damaged by recent events. The behaviour of MPs Jami-Lee Ross, Andrew Falloon, Hamish Walker, Todd Barclay, Aaron Gilmore before them, spoke of a culture in which bullies thrive. I wrote about it here.
How does that happen if your candidate selection is rigorous? Auckland Central was a chance to restore the credibility of the process.
In one way, it did that: All three candidates on the shortlist impress as not the bullying sort.
But what Samarakone was subjected to – by known and unknown members of the party – certainly looks as if bullies felt it was just fine to let themselves off the leash. National has much to address.
The evening had its moments. Paul Goldsmith is the list MP who perennially stands in Epsom but tries not to win, so Act's David Seymour can take the seat. His job was to entertain and inspire the audience while votes were counted.
"Why is it me here?" he said. "I'm the guy who can't even win the safest seat in the country."
Referring to party leader Judith Collins' enthusiasm for Seymour, he added, "The legs keep being taken out from under me and Aunty Judy has done it again today." It's not clear how much Collins likes being called Aunty Judy.
When Mellow was announced as the winner she was clearly overwhelmed. And that was great. If we all know how to cope calmly with the biggest moments in our lives, they probably aren't big enough.
She thanked the other two candidates, "for doing so well". Everything stopped for a moment, but then came the laughter. It was warm.